Last year's Bathurst 1000 was one for the ages. A titanic seven-hour tussle full of intrigue, close racing, crushing crashes, controversy, and daring passes. And don’t get me started on the final 30 minutes. It was so exciting that my stepfather, who is an unusually calm and quiet man, suddenly leapt from the sofa and proceeded to shout and punch the air while bouncing on the balls of his feet.
And being Bathurst, half the fun is what happens off the track. I grew up a stone’s throw from The Mountain and my enduring memories of the wild and dusty camp sites that hug the circuit are of shining seas of crushed beer cans, of crude and unsavoury behaviour, and of a fierce, tribal rivalry. The line might have been invisible, but it was omnipresent: you were either Red or you were Blue.
Boy did it mean a lot to us then. We didn’t just argue about it in the schoolyard, and later in the pub, but we wore the colours with pride, and we idolised our drivers. To us, Peter Brock and Dick Johnson were Holden v Ford. And when Craig Lowndes decided to ditch his Commodore for a green-eyed Falcon, we all went a little mad. “We actually got a death threat,” Lowndes told the ABC, years later. “We had a bodyguard that travelled with us for the first six months.”
Anyway, the point is it meant something. It mattered. Now, though, I worry that the passion has fizzled. As I watched the race and stared as the chopper cam completed yet another daredevil swoop over the top of The Mountain, all I could think was: has the Blue v Red rivalry run its course? Is the whole Holden v Ford thing … dead?
The pictures on the box made a pretty convincing argument that no, it hasn’t, and no, it isn’t, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that, despite the fans’ obvious and undiminished passion for the race, the two-tribes thing felt somehow half-hearted; that the intensity was a ghost of what it once was.
This is relatively easy to explain. Last year’s Great Race was the first time the grid was totally void of locally made metal (there were still some Falcons running around in 2018), and if you’re a Holden fan, the potency has had even longer to dissipate. More than Ford, Holden felt uniquely Australian, which has made the transition to imported cars harder to swallow. The Camaro, which is expertly fettled by HSV, offers some solace, but it’s expensive and isn’t racing. The same will apply to the incoming Chevy Corvette.
It’s been an easier switch for Ford fans. Without as much emotional baggage to contend with, the move from Falcon to Mustang has felt fairly natural. Plus, Ford is pounding Holden in the exciting road-car stakes. It has the Raptor, incoming Fiesta and Focus STs (plus the cracking Focus RS), rumours of an even hotter ute are rampant, and the Mustang R-Spec has even rekindled some local manufacturing knowhow and restarted the Campbellfield production line. Discount HSV for a moment and what does Holden have to compete with? If Blue v Red isn’t dead, then the paradigm has certainly shifted. And Blue is kicking Red’s ass…
There are small and passionate pockets that will disagree, of course, and they’ll likely threaten to nail my traitorous skin to the nearest flagpole. Cameron Kirby met many of these diehards when he became the first journalist in the country to spend some quality time with the Mustang R-Spec during the thick of last year’s race. Though I’d wager that despite their obvious passion and love of racing, they’re either clinging to the past or are blissfully unaware of the ground shifting beneath their feet. Even if the rivalry burns just as fiercely in their eyes, will their kids feel the same way? I doubt it.